1. PainePR

David Paine founded PainePR with a clearly-articulated commitment to creating an alternative to the big bureaucratic agencies, and values have always been at the heart of his management approach. The firm’s “statement of purpose” commits to creating “an intellectually stimulating, honest and fair work environment where the interests and contributions of everyone involved in our success are recognized and valued, where people can genuinely enjoy their jobs and where each of us has opportunities to achieve high levels of professional and personal growth.” That’s reinforced by a commitment to four core values: cooperation, fairness, openness and excellence.

Having said all that, 2005 was a challenging year. After being acquired by Canadian holding company Cossette, there were concerns about whether the company could maintain its distinctive culture. The firm invested more than $70,000 to hold an all-staff retreat in Malibu, bringing together all 66 of our employees from New York, Boston, Los Angeles and Orange County for two days of bonding, meetings and training sessions intended to reinforce the values, educate people about its systems and help build relationships between new people and those who’d been with the company longer. At the same time, the firm maintained its commitment to professional development, with courses in subjects as varied as conflict resolution, quality, stress management and writing.

Employees at PainePR gave their firm the highest marks of any midsize agency when they were asked about internal communications and ethics, and when they were asked whether they could balance work and life demands effectively.

PainePR has a “unique operational and cultural approach that never stops trying to get better,” raves one respondent. “The firm is constantly innovating, creating new services or practice areas, developing better systems and evolving. The leadership always is looking to the future, never accepting the status quo.” Says another, “The other remarkable thing about working at PainePR is the philosophy of continual improvement that we practice.” And another adds: “I came here after many years at a big agency, and it’s refreshing to see how everything is set up to deliver operational excellence for our clients, while preserving life balance. At larger firms, the structure squeezes life out of account staff for the goal of driving financials.”

2. Chandler Chicco Agency

From its inception, Chandler Chicco has been about knocking down the walls and getting rid of the titles that hinder cooperation and creativity, and has been a permanent fixture on our Best Agencies to Work For list as a result. The culture is uniquely open, as close to a true meritocracy as there is in the PR business, with individual judged on their ability to contribute rather than their title, tenure or seniority. Everyone regardless of level has the opportunity to make meaningful contributions. And flex-time and telecommuting have long been a way of life at CCC.

But as it has grown, Chandler Chicco has not been resting on its laurels. It launched its Phase IV Training and Development initiative in June 2004, offering a rotating schedule of workshops almost every week. Employees are granted an extra vacation day after attending 10 workshops, and last year the firm’s people attended 56 workshops and more than a dozen outside seminars. The firm has also enhanced its employee communications efforts. Principals Bob Chandler and Gianfranco Chicco gather staff for a lunchtime staff meetings once a month, but there’s also a weekly C3 (Culture, Communications and Channels) Broadcast that contains information on current activities, professional development, and new employees, a first-rate Internet, and several employee newsletters.

CCA scored the highest marks among small agencies when employees were asked whether they were encouraged to use their own initiative and whether they were fairly compensated for their contributions to the firm. Of course employees enjoy the “wonderful perks like a great 401K, daily free lunches, a personal trainer, and impromptu office parties,” but what really impresses them are “dedicated, smart, creative individuals who are inspiring to work with” and “bright, passionate, and enthusiastic about their jobs.” Management is “extremely approachable” and “lives its values more than any agency I’ve ever seen.” Says one happy employee: “Bob and Gianfranco are the coolest dudes in pharma PR.”

3. Access Communications

A couple of years ago, Access was named the Best Place to Work in the Bay Area with fewer than 101 employees by the San Francisco Business Times and the Silicon Valley/San Jose Business Journal, an indication of the firm’s ability to maintain its focus on employees even through the downturn in the technology sector.

The firm has one of the highest retention rates in the country, with employees averaging five years with Access. They are attracted by the competitive pay and benefits packages, and they stay for the extensive training program and perks such as Whoopee Events and monthly Wheel of Fortune Spins. And Access employees were most likely among midsize agencies to say that they had confidence in the quality of management at their agency, and that morale at their agency was high.

“Access Communications has a unique atmosphere in that it is fun to work here but the work is also very challenging,” says one respondent. Others like the fact that “value is not determined by title… all staff are respected and valued,” and “the work I do at Access is never taken for granted and is always seen, even if I don’t work with someone.” Says another, “Whether it is a honoring an employee with a hit of the month or a ‘gold-bucket’ the agency ensures that when I leave the office, I feel satisfied for having completed a well earned and recognized task.”

4. Text 100

Text 100 is another PR firm that uses its statement of values to underscore the importance of people policies to its success. Those values emphasize respect for the individual (“everyone is unique; we encourage the character of our people”) and liberating employees’ potential (“we believe our people all have amazing potential and we are dedicated to providing a work environment where this potential can flourish”) and are the foundation of the firm’s impressive PRotocol University professional development program, its emphasis on work-life balance (including a three-month sabbatical available after six years), and its exceptionally generous vacation policy (24 days off in year one, 29 in year three).

Text 100 employees were most likely among midsize agencies to say that they planned to build their career with this agency, and gave their firm the highest marks when asked if people treated each other with respect regardless of title. They also gave the firm top marks when asked if the work was intellectually stimulating.

“Text 100 provides growth opportunities at all levels and in all directions,” says one respondent. “It allows employees to explore what they personally want from life. Whether it’s to work at home to be with their children, or move to a different country, Text will work to make that happen and follow through. The people here aren’t competing with one another but supporting each other’s growth and strengths. It’s a great place to work and I don’t plan on leaving, because I know that as my life changes, Text will be supportive, caring, encouraging, and respectful.”

5. A&R Partners

Technology PR firm A&R Partners has been a fixture on this list even through good times for the sector and bad, maintaining its focus on workplace issues even when many of its peers were abandoning some of their more generous policies and perks in the face of harsh economic reality. The firm was guided throughout by its four management tenets: Clear, candid communication; consistent excellence; optimal employee growth and retention; and an inspiring working environment.

The firm’s personnel philosophy is simply stated—hire great people and retain them with top compensation and growth opportunities—but not necessarily easy to execute. The firm devotes time and energy to identifying candidates who embody its core values and have a passion for public relations, and formally trains hiring teams in behavioral and talent interviewing techniques to make sure they understand a candidate’s skills, values, talents and potential for chemistry with the team and clients. There’s a first-rate professional development program that includes in-house seminars on 23 PR skills areas, group knowledge-sharing, and training by outside experts. The firm scored the highest marks of any midsize agency on questions related to client service and on those related to professional development.

“It’s clear that the partners have made employees their number one concern,” says one respondent. “A&R provides amazing training options, the ability to move around the agency in different roles as employees interests change. The biggest perk here is the respect and attention that each employees receives on a daily basis.” Says another: “A ton of smart people are willing to take time out of their busy day to teach junior members the ropes. The training program second to none.” Finally: “We are open to doing things in ways they haven’t been done before, and don’t mind small failures along the way. We keep the ultimate goal in mind, and are willing to learn as we go, make adjustments as we go. This keeps us strong and smart and ahead of the curve.”

6. Horn Group

Horn Group is back at the top of its game after taking its share of lumps during the technology slump. Long recognized as one of the industry’s most supportive agencies for working moms, it continues to offer employees a range of options that help them balance work and life: a whopping 25 days of paid time off during an employee’s first four years of employment, increasing to 30 days at five years, along with a one month paid sabbatical. The firm has offered creative working solutions for 10 years now, enabling managers and employees to build individual work plans that include flexible schedules, telecommuting and/or part time arrangements. (Each employee crafts his or her own proposal which is reviewed and approved by a manager). The firm also scored the highest marks of any midsize agency when employees were asked whether their agency had eliminated unnecessary bureaucracy

“Horn Group is the kind of place you can stay for ever and keep moving up the ladder,” says one respondent. “You can create a new job opportunity if it works for the business and run with it.” “The corporate culture here pushes you to succeed, but does not pigeon-hole you into a particular area like many other larger firms would,” says another. “The agency values each individual contributor and rewards each person handsomely for a job well done.”

7. OutCast Communications

There’s a definite OutCast mentality. The firm calls its people Outcasts and says that to the outside world they are “the most competitive, intelligent, fearless, tuned in and tenacious public relations practitioners in the world… always innovating and trying new approaches, continuously looking for ways to over-deliver, and then some.” But to each other, OutCasts are “team-oriented, supportive, collaborative and fun” and “always looking for ways to help each other grow.” That’s the company vision. The reality? “Everyone is smart, dedicated and really focused,” says one respondent. “Everyone is driven, smart and hard working, yet has enough sense of humor to keep the workplace fun,” adds another. “OutCast has three core values—excellence, integrity and balance—that come shining through in everything the agency does. It’s a great place to work: amazing talent, really interesting clients, great career opportunities.” The firm scored the highest marks of any midsize agency when employees were asked whether they liked the people they worked most closely with, and whether their agency did a good job of attracting high caliber employees

8. Padilla Speer Beardsley

Padilla Speer Beardsley scored the highest marks of any midsize agency when employees were asked whether they felt like a partner to their clients rather than an order taker and gave their firm very high marks when they were asked whether they believed the work was meaningful and worthwhile. “PSB isn’t flashy, and I couldn’t be happier about that,” says one respondent. “If you’re looking to inflate egos or generate buzz without substance, we’re not the guys. However, if you’re serious about using PR to further your business, there’s nobody better.” Others praise the “highest ethical standards” and believe “large number of accredited PR practitioners” pays off in terms of “professionalism, quality of work, culture, and benefits.” Adds another: “Our hierarchy is flat and anyone can walk into the CEOs office to discuss an issue or present an idea.”

9. CRT/tanaka

CRT/tanaka was formed last year by the merger of Carter Ryley Thomas and Patrice Tanaka & Company, both fixtures on our Best Agencies to Work For lists over the years. The merging of the two cultures appears to have gone smoothly and the result is a values-based agency—what’s best for the group comes first; work for and trust each other; seek responsibility, and share recognition and rewards; respect and value individuals and their differences; keep a balance between family and work—with a generous policy for vacation, sick and personal days, a solid professional development program, and a flexible work environment. Says one respondent: “While CRT/tanaka is a new entity… the company culture has remained intact. In fact, in many ways, it has only gotten better. We continue to live our values, strive to improve our communities through community service and pro bono work and most importantly, achieve great work for our clients.”

10. Dix & Eaton

Employee-owned Dix & Eaton promises “a working environment characterized by teamwork, collegiality and mutual respect; energizing and challenging assignments; learning development and professional growth opportunities; and an emphasis on ideas and performance over position and tenure,” and backs that up with a healthy profit-sharing plan, an impressive professional development program, and a self-directed culture where individuals plan their careers with the aid of a developmental partner. As a result, “We do exceptional work for our clients,” says one respondent. “We take very seriously our role as their trusted advisors.” Says another: “During the past decade, Dix & Eaton has navigated a major transition in leadership, ownership and culture in a way that few outsiders believed it could. I genuinely believe we are now stronger than we have ever been.”